African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick

African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick

African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick

African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick


Although Herman Melville's masterworks Moby-Dick and Benito Cerenohave long been the subject of vigorous scholarly examination, the impact of African culture on these works has received surprisingly little critical attention. Presenting a groundbreaking reappraisal of these two powerful pieces of fiction, Sterling Stuckey reveals how African customs and rituals heavily influenced one of America's greatest novelists.

The Melville that emerges in this innovative, intertextual study is one profoundly shaped by the vibrant African-influenced music and dance culture of nineteenth-century America. Drawing on extensive research, Stuckey reveals how celebrations of African culture by black Americans, such as the Pinkster festival and the Ring Shout dance form, permeated Melville's environs during his formative years and found their way into his finest fiction. Also demonstrated is the extent to which the author of Moby-Dick is indebted to Frederick Douglass's depiction of music, especially the blues, in his classic slave narrative. Connections between Melville's work and African culture are also extended beyond America to the African continent itself. With readings of hitherto unexplored chapters in Delano's Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and other nonfiction sources--such as Joseph Dupuis's Journal of a Residence in Ashantee --Stuckey links Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick , pinpointing the sources from which Melville drew to fashion major characters that appear aboard both the Pequod and the San Dominick.

Combining inventive literary and historical analysis, Stuckey shows how myriad aspects of African culture coalesced to create the unique vision conveyed in Moby-Dick and Benito Cereno. Ultimately,African Culture and Melville's Artprovides a wealth of insight into the novelist's expressive power and the development of his distinct cross-cultural aesthetic.


Like the paintings in the Ajanta caves, the beauty of Moby-Dick can
be known only to those who will make the pilgrimage to it, and stay
within its dark confines until what is darkness has become light, and
one can make out, with the help of an occasional torch, its grand de
sign, its complicated arabesque, the minute significance of its parts

—Lewis Mumford, Herman Melville, 1929

To an astonishing extent, what Mumford says of Moby-Dick applies to Benito Cereno. Indeed, his reference to particular angles of light, as from a torch, illumining previously dark areas of understanding applies to both masterpieces. By warning us that much of Moby-Dick remains to be understood, Mumford posits a great animating principle of Melville’s art, that neither the sweep of his creative imagination nor the depth of his probing of the human condition are meant to be exhausted in particular lifetimes. That Melville searches out and examines cultural resources that appear least likely, when transmuted, to garland his art deepens the darkness and extends the time required for much of it to be cast aside. But he is equally good at taking that which is before our eyes and working a subtle magic that long makes it invisible.

Attention is directed at criticism that at times denies Melville’s skills as a novelist. in such instances, critics who view his work unfavorably are responded to because they touch on areas of Melville’s alleged inadequacies that are, in light of new findings, greater strengths than critics, past and present, have imagined. These findings illuminate so much about the works themselves that they enable us to answer questions never before posed about Melville’s creative process. To this end, my purpose is to show how he used sources never before read by critics to fashion strikingly intricate and subtle techniques of craft, heretofore unexplored, in creating two of his greatest works, Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick.

The introduction sets the stage for sustained consideration of how Melville used such sources to form his aesthetic. What follows is a chapter-bychapter demonstration that he was a far more subtle and inventive writer than . . .

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